The most revered woman in late 19th-century America is someone you’ve probably never heard of: Fanny Crosby.
Even if she is barely remembered today, the songs she wrote are still sung every week from coast to coast and around the world.
She was born Frances Jane Crosby in Putnam County, New York, in 1820. She died in February 1915, just a month short of her 95th birthday. And what a long life of achievement it was!
She earned great fame and appreciation for her charitable work in inner cities, especially when she nursed the sick during New York’s terrible cholera epidemic in the late 1840s. Thousands fled the city, but Fanny stayed behind, contracting the disease herself but later recovering.
She probably holds the record for having met more US presidents than any other American, living or dead — an astounding 21, or almost half of the 43 men who’ve held the office. She met every single one (in some cases after they served in the White House) from John Quincy Adams to Woodrow Wilson. She was also the very first woman to address the US Congress.
Her memory was legendary. By age 15, she had memorized the first five books of the Old Testament, the first four of the New (the gospels of Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John), the books of Proverbs and Song of Solomon, and many of the Psalms.
By age 20, Crosby called herself “an ardent Democrat” at a time when Democrats supported smaller government while their main opponents, the Whigs, endorsed a national bank, federal infrastructure spending, higher tariffs, and other interventions. At least one of the more than 1,000 poems she wrote took aim at the Whig presidential candidate in 1840, William Henry Harrison. An abolitionist through and through, the slavery issue pushed her into the Whig camp a few years later. But when Democrat Franklin Pierce won the White House in 1852, she wrote, “The election’s past and I’m pierced at last. The locos have gained the day.” That was an allusion to the Locofocos, the most libertarian wing of the Democratic Party.
Fanny Crosby was clearly a woman that people wanted to meet. The reason? She was the best-known hymn writer of her day. She wrote about 9,000 hymns in her lifetime, a record no one else has ever approached. America’s Protestant churches by the late 19th century were filled with music from the creative mind of Fanny Crosby. Some of her hymns are well-known and still widely sung, from “To God Be the Glory” to “Blessed Assurance.”
What made Fanny’s life so remarkable was the handicap she endured and overcame: total blindness. At the age of just six months, treatment for an inflammation of her eyes blinded her for life. She could never see, but in a very poignant way, she never looked back, either. Throughout her life, she inspired others with her hard work and personal initiative. She even learned to play the piano, organ, harp, and guitar, and became a respected soprano singer. She was popular as much for her perseverance in the face of a horrific obstacle as for all the many good deeds she performed.
How’s this for a sunny perspective in the face of adversity? “It seemed intended by the blessed providence of God,” she once observed,
that I should be blind all my life, and I thank him for the dispensation. If perfect earthly sight were offered me tomorrow I would not accept it. I might not have sung hymns to the praise of God if I had been distracted by the beautiful and interesting things around me.
Crosby was reported as saying had it not been for her affliction, she “might not have so good an education or have so great an influence, and certainly not so fine a memory.”
Fanny Crosby set a personal goal of bringing a million people to Christianity through her hymns. Whenever she wrote one, she prayed it would bring women and men to the faith, and she kept careful records of those reported to have been converted through her works. She also wrote four books of poetry.
America is a country with a history of heroes, but it seems at times that we’ve forgotten more than we’re producing. Maybe there’s a connection there. If we forget our heroes, how can their examples serve as inspirations?
In honor of her 85th birthday in 1905, “Fanny Crosby Day” was celebrated in churches all over the world. In May 1911, at age 91, she spoke to 5,000 people in Carnegie Hall after the crowd sang her songs for 30 minutes.
Through her powerful example and exemplary character, she became one of the most admired women in American history. If she had only kept quiet about her faith, complained about her plight as a blind person, or declared a right to a federal handout, maybe the writers of our history texts today wouldn’t ignore her.
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Lawrence W. (“Larry”) Reed became president of FEE in 2008 after serving as chairman of its board of trustees in the 1990s and both writing and speaking for FEE since the late 1970s.
EDITORS NOTE: Each week, Mr. Reed will relate the stories of people whose choices and actions make them heroes. See the table of contents for previous installments.